Imports of honey bees come with sting

BEES are being flown more than 11,000 miles in an attempt to save the Scottish honey industry from collapse.

Desperate beekeepers have been forced to import new stocks of insects from as far away as New Zealand after wet summers and infestations of disease left them struggling to stay in business.

Supplies of honey from the UK have been running low because commercial beekeepers have lost up to 80 per cent of their bees in recent years. They say they have had no choice but to import replacement bees from abroad.

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But there is a sting – bee experts have attacked the businesses, accusing them of risking new outbreaks of disease and threatening the future of native species by bringing in foreign breeds.

Heather Hills Honey in Perthshire, which has 1,300 hives and 52 million bees, is among a growing number of farms that have been forced to import the insects to survive.

Over the past year, due to freezing temperatures, rain and disease, the farm lost about 800 hives – compared to about 150 in a normal year.

The farm was already struggling because of a series of abnormally wet summers, which left the bees unable to leave their hives to collect pollen or breed, when it was struck by an outbreak of European Foulbrood. The disease, caused by a bacterium that infests bee larvae and leaves a foul rotten fish smell, took hold across Perthshire and Angus, decimating hundreds of hives.

"If we hadn't got these replacement bees we would have gone out of business," said Mark Noonan, managing director of Heather Hills, which has been operating since 1945. "We have had to really consider whether to keep going or not."

New Zealand specialises in shipping honey bees around the world. Sometimes whole colonies are ordered, at other times just new queens to put in an existing hive. Other countries that export bees include Slovenia and Germany. The bee type has no impact on the taste or appearance of the honey.

Noonan chose New Zealand bees because the country has a similar climate to Scotland, and a summer of about the same length, so he thinks the bees should adapt well.

One colony costs up to 200, meaning he had to spend thousands of pounds to restock his empty hives.

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However, Alan Teale, president of the Scottish Beekeepers' Association, said he had "no sympathy whatsoever" with firms that had decided to import insects from overseas.

He said it was against the SBA code of conduct, and warned that foreign bees posed a threat to native breeds.

"We understand why commercial beekeepers have been bringing these bees in but we don't like it," Teale said. "They are a threat to the majority of beekeepers in the UK because they could cause genetic erosion of native populations and these bees are poorly adapted to our climate."

Instead, he said, every effort should be made to preserve the native dark northern European honeybee. The bees from New Zealand are usually mongrel varieties developed over years of cross breeding.

Gavin Ramsay, disease convener at the SBA, said he was worried that importing the insects could bring disease. Already the UK has become infested with Varroa, a mite, which came to Britain from Europe, after spreading from Asia, and kills off entire hives.

Ramsay said: "It's very sad that some that haven't traditionally imported at all are doing so now."

Noonan hit back: "You can afford to be judgemental if your livelihood doesn't depend on it. If there were stock in this country then I would prefer to get them from here, but if we hadn't done this we would have gone out of business."

He pointed out that there were regulations to ensure only bees with a clean bill of health were brought to the UK, and said there would no cross breeding because he would keep the New Zealand insects separate from his native stock.